The 10 Observation Tips

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“There are no facts inside your building, so get outside.”  

Steve Blank

The first time I observed people, I felt scared and insecure. What if people would notice I am observing them? What if they get mad at me for staring at them? Luckily, no one got mad, because the people that I was observing didn’t even notice I was there.

My task at that time, 7 years ago, was for the first project of my design bachelor studies. We received the task to observe how users were using the ticket machines for train tickets at Amsterdam Airport. I was shocked by how many people were having issues with the machines. Because I didn’t have those issues and thought the machine was easy to use. 

I didn’t realise at the time that I was an experienced user of the machine. While I was increasing my experience of user observations, I learned not to assume that people have certain issues, and to always have unbiased empathy of people’s behaviour and emotions.

In the seven years from that moment now, I have learned a lot about how to do observations well which I’d like to share with you.

“Observing is a crucial way to understand everything around us.”

Observations come in two types:

1. Natural observations: nobody knows you’re watching, you perform the observation in a natural environment;

2. Controlled observations: the user is asked to perform a certain action knowing she’s being watched. Though, this type of observation may lead to a change in the behaviour of the person being observed. This is called the Hawthorne effect.

Do you change your behaviour when you know someone is watching what you are doing?  

I would, definitely. I would be more aware of every step that I’m taking. If I would know someone is watching me drinking my coffee, I would be drinking my coffee way slower and really making sure that I would not spill.

That’s why this blog is about natural observations. Why should you do it, you ask? 

1. You will have a better understanding of who your customers are, what they need, and what they want

With this information, you’ll be able to improve your services and products with a higher chance of new- and repeat visitors.

2. It’s as unbiased as they can be

Your test person doesn’t know you’re around which means people are in their completely natural habitat. People often say one thing but do another. 

3. You can read peoples’ emotions

You can focus solely on the emotions of people. People’s decisions are made on their emotions, they are often not rational.

 4. You create a competitive advantage 

Because you know exactly what, where and how your customers want it.

5. It’s easy, fast and there’s no need for props

Isn’t that great? Just look at people acting the way they do. Make sure you make notes and take pictures and videos.  

Observations will work especially well when you are in direct contact with customers, this can be:

1. A B2C selling services: When you are offering services to your customers, you can use observations to understand deeper what the current pains are of the customers. When you want to start offering services, you can use observations to test your assumptions. 

2. A B2C selling products: Observations are ideal if you are offering products to customers. You can do it in two ways: observe a customer when she is using your product, or observe a user who is using a product that has pain with it. 

3. A e-commerce business: Observations can also be made online, by using for example:

  • Heatmaps & Google Analytics to follow live actions of a user
  • Social media is also a good platform to ‘listen’ to your clients
  • Q & A, Quora for example; to find out what people want to know

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Example heatmap


So how do you do it?

Before you start, you will need to have something to validate. This can be:

  • Validation of a user pain: what pain are your customers feeling that you want to resolve?


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  • Validation of product or service: when you want to bring a new product or service on the market or want to validate how your customers are feeling about your current prototype.

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Observation form template

Hope this will get you started! Here are the top 10 tips to make observations successful:  

  1. Be empathetic: focus on the other, not on how you would have done it.
  2. Decide on a goal: who, where, when, what, how are you going to do it?
  3. Do it together to broaden the perspective of what’s really going on.
  4. Watch the body language of the users: how are they behaving, do are they for example open, closed, confused? 
  5. Capture the atmosphere: how does it feel for you? Is it for example calm, or busy, cold, warm? 
  6. Take pictures and videos from how the user is using the products, but be
  7. Ethical: don’t take pictures of children without the approval of parents or in surroundings where pictures and videos aren’t allowed
  8. Write down your impressions to capture the relevant information directly. You might forget important details later.
  9. Use it as validation for the assumptions you have around your customer pain, product or service.
  10. Stay for a couple of hours in the same place or observe at least 5 people, because you never know what happens. Be patient, you might start seeing or hearing things you didn’t see or hear before.

There are some limitations of observations, though?


– You can only test what’s already there, which means you cannot observe a new product. If you want to test a new product or service, which I would highly recommend to do so, you can do a user test. 


– You will not find the ‘Why’s’ of actions. And knowing why people act a certain way is crucial in design. That’s why observations will not be the only research method you’re using. Interviews (place link here) is perfect for getting the Why’s answered.


– There is little control over who, when, and what is going to happen. Patience is key and you need to be ready whenever the right person appears. 


Now go out, and observe! 

Awesome that you took the time to read this article. Now it’s time for you to go out and observe your customers. Use the observation form template, and go out observe! 


Next up: what can you actually do with all the information gathered from your audience? 

How do you convert this into the improvement of your services and products? The next blog is all about what to do with all the gathered information.